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State of the Union 8/20/20: Ole Miss athletics had its first COVID-19 outbreak. What is next?

It was only a matter of time.

Ole Miss Athletics

Well, it happened. Ole Miss athletics had its first COVID-19 outbreak. A memo emailed to the university’s students and faculty reported that 13 Rebels and one employee within the department tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday, and 11 of the 13 athletes are on the same team. Nick Suss of the Clarion Ledger reported that the 11 cases are not on the football team and the administration has since sent a revision upping the number to 15 active cases.

There is a lot to unpack here so buckle up:

It’s not good, but it was inevitable.

Mississippi announced on Wednesday that the state has two significant COVID-19 hot spots and surprise, surprise, both are in college towns. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs did not say exactly how many cases have been reported so far but he mentioned that the Department of Health is looking in to outbreaks in Oxford and Columbus. The latter is host to the Mississippi University for Women, and the former is home to the University of Mississippi.

No, you sick twisted college message board trolls quick to shout praises of Starkville’s virus management, that does not make you exempt. Nor should we be politicizing a global pandemic, but I digress. The cases in Columbus are traced back to the Cotton District, 27.2 miles (32 minutes) east. Starkville calls itself Starkvegas, but the District is more like the Reno to The Oxford Square’s Mandalay Bay. On a Mississippi scale, of course. Call it what you will but the Cotton District is a fun place to go and the Maroon-laden college kids in the town are acting like college kids, just like they have at Ole Miss and MUWM.

Just like they have in Tuscaloosa.

Just like they have in Dahlonega, Georgia.

Just like they will in Athens, Gainesville, Lexington, Columbia, Knoxville, Auburn, Baton Rouge, Fayetteville, College Station, Nashville, Bloomington, East Lansing, Ann Arbor, State College, New Brunswick, College Park, Champaign-Urbana, Iowa City, Evanston, Lincoln, West Lafayette, Madison, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Waco, Ames, Lawrence, Manhattan, Stillwater, Norman, Fort Worth, Austin, Morgantown, Lubbock, Chestnut Hill, Clemson, Tallahassee, Louisville, Raleigh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Winston-Salem, Durham, Atlanta, Coral Gables, Chapel Hill, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Tucson, Tempe, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Boulder, Eugene, Corvallis, Stanford, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Pullman.

College kids are going to act like college kids in every single college town in the United States. Clusters are going to form, hot spots will be born, and the students on campus, in apartment complexes, or on the bus, will continue to put the athletes at risk.

While the headlines aren’t great, a flurry of positive results in the athletics department was bound to happen, and will continue to happen at programs around the country. It’s not an if, it’s a when. It is only a matter of time. Ole Miss is getting its (hopefully first and only) outbreak out of the way early.

In respect to football, things are actually better.

On August 7th, the football team reported six positive cases of COVID-19 and 10 additional players in quarantine as a result of contact tracing. The most recent report established that are four positive cases in the athletic department, beyond the 11 on the same team— and that team is not football. Having that confirmation means that, at worst, there are two less positive cases on the football team than there were at the beginning of the month.

11 athletes on a single team is not an insignificant number. By those metrics, the outbreak consists of either 73 percent of the volleyball team, 42 percent of soccer, 37 percent of both men’s and women’s basketball, large percentages of track and field, golf, tennis, softball, rifle, and cross country, or it’s (a fairly small) 32 percent of baseball. Fall sports are in season and following strict protocols surrounding temperature checks, testing, distancing, sanitation, etc. while springs sports are less regulated and watched. For such a large number of positives to hit on a single team, it is likely a larger roster. Logical jumps would figure that it’s a large, offseason sport, and the odds are in favor of the baseball team.

If that assumption is true, the baseball team will not be in the facilities of fall sports teams or around the football team if the athletes aren’t partying with one another on off-nights. Fall sports can continue full-steam ahead with faith in what they’ve been doing, and the conditions within the football have actually improved.

The proof is in the pudding.

A bubble, or semblance there of, works and only a bubble, or semblance there of, works. The teams that stay the healthiest throughout the fall athletic calendar will have the upper hand. Look at MLB and look at the NWSL, MLS, NBA, NHL, and sports leagues that have returned around the world. The leagues that have bubbled, have seen very few or zero positive cases since their start. On the flip side, Major League Baseball has cancelled multiple series, forced multiple teams into full-team quarantine and shuffled its schedule around outbreaks.

If Ole Miss is to play sports and football this fall, staying as close to a bubble environment as possible is key. Per head football coach Lane Kiffin, 80-to-90% of his athletes will have their classes entirely online, and that is surely the case throughout the entire department. That is the key. From there, athletes in-season need to stay amongst each other and continue to adhere to what they are being told by the health advisors and Shannon Singletary, the Senior Associate A.D. for Health and Sports Performance. It has worked since the athletes arrived back on campus this summer, and will continue to work until the system is breached.

At the end of the day, fall athletics planned to play are playing until they are not. Nobody is a medical expert (except for actual medical experts) and while athletic directors, conference health professionals, and people in those spheres talk to one another, there isn’t a firm answer to the questions surrounding COVID-19 in an athletic department. People will be forced to adapt, decisions will need to be made on the fly, and there certainly cannot be a lack of luck.

As of right now, the season is on in the Southeastern Conference. It’s very black and white.